Sunday, 24 August 2008

European Grand Prix: Massa Wins First Valencia Grand Prix?

Felipe Massa took the chequered flag in the inaugural European Grand Prix in Valencia to record what should be a well deserved fourth victory of the season. However, the race result is still in doubt due to the fact the race stewards are going to be investigating an incident in the pit lane during Massa's second and final stop, which could yet gift the 10 points to Lewis Hamilton. In truth it wasn't a great race, and the most exciting action happened in the pitlane, mainly with Ferrari attempting to shoot themselves in the feet as much as possible. Kubica finished the race strongly in third, but Kimi Raikkonen ended up retired and pointless after an engine failure.

If Massa is to be denied his victory it will be extremely harsh on the young Brazilian as he drove a faultless race from lights to flag. After some discussion over night Massa ended up starting from pole on the right hand side of the grid instead of the left as had been originally expected, and quite right too. The advantage this gave him allowed him to take the perfect line through the opening corner and lead the race from the first lap onwards. He didn't have to worry too much about Hamilton behind him from the start as the McLaren driver didn't get the best of starts and was more worried about fending off Kubica's BMW through the opening corners.

Amazingly everyone managed to get through the tight turn 2 relatively unscathed, in stark contrast to the GP2 races earlier in the weekend. Sadly that wasn't to be maintained throughout the rest of the opening lap. Firstly David Coulthard got a nudge from behind and spun, putting him right down to last place, then disaster struck for home favourite Fernando Alonso. To the horror of the 100,000 Spanish fans lining the circuit Alonso got rear ended by Kazuki Nakajima's Williams, removing his rear wing. He limped back to the pits and the Renault mechanics tried to get the car back out on track to try and put on a show for the fans, but on closer inspection there was damage to the rear suspension and gearbox so the towel was thrown in. Alonso is the main reason this Grand Prix came to Valencia, and he will have been furious to see his race ruined so early on and to be unable to perform for his hordes of fans.

From then on it was pretty plain sailing for most of the field for the first stint. Massa managed to edge gradually ahead of Hamilton, and Hamilton in turn edged ahead of Kubica. Behind him Kovalainen had made it in front of compatriot Raikkonen from the start and was managing to keep the Ferrari behind him with relative ease. The Ferrari was probably the faster car, as evidenced by Massa's blistering pace out front, but due to the tight nature of the track there was little opportunity to overtake.

The question now was one of fuel loads. Hamilton's only hope appeared to be if Massa had been running significantly lighter in qualifying. Massa was indeed the first to pit, and strangely that was bad news for Kimi Raikkonen. Massa was released from his stop straight into the path of his team mate, meaning Kimi was stuck behind a much heavier car while Kovalainen, the man he was challenging, was able to cruise away into the distance. Not great strategy work from Ferrari it must be said.

Hamilton though was not able to stay out too much longer and was next to pit. He made a good stop, but despite setting the fastest lap of the race while out in front was unable to put any significant dent in Massa's 4 second lead at the front of the field. And things didn't get much better for Hamilton as this second stint was where Massa really put the hammer down. Massa made it look pretty effortless behind the wheel, slowly but surely putting tenth after tenth after tenth between himself and Hamilton. Lewis wasn't driving badly, the McLaren just didn't have anything more to give on the day.

Then things finally got a little bit interesting in the final pit stops. Massa was bunched up behind backmarker Sutil as they both entered the pits. Both had pretty much identical pit stops, but Ferrari were clearly anxious to get their man out in front of the back marker and released him right alongside the Force India. Due to the extremely tight pit lane exit Massa was forced to back off and pull in behind Sutil. There was no contact, but it certainly was very risky from Ferrari, and sure enough the announcement was made that they were under investigation for the incident.

But then things took a turn for the weirder, as it was then announced that the incident was to be investigated AFTER the race. This would mean that Massa would take the chequered flag but with the possibility of subsequently being stripped of the trophy. Investigating incidents after the race normally only occurs if the incident in question happens in the final 5 laps of the race. However, there were more like 20 laps to go when this incident occurred. The decision was a baffling one, and one which has the potential to throw some real controversy over the race and title challenge. The evidence was there for all to see. Either it was dangerous or it wasn't, the decision should be a fairly straighforward one for the stewards. Why on earth did they dodge the bullet and delay the decision? It just didn't make any sense.

While Ferrari were still worrying about what penalty may befall their lead driver (and let's be honest about this, on current form Massa has to be the lead driver in the team. Raikkonen doesn't look anywhere near capable of mounting a consistent title defence at the moment), things got much worse for the team. Raikkonen pitted, and whilst the fuel rig guys were still trying to pull the nozzle free Kimi floored the throttle. The nozzle was still very much attached, along with the two guys holding it, and one poor pit worker got clobbered by the rear wheel of the Ferrari. Kimi hit the brakes, but the damage had been done and the mechanic looked pretty badly hurt. Thankfully it seems that the mechanic is going to be OK, but it was still a horrible looking incident.

Replays showed that Raikkonen had NOT been given the green light to leave the pits from Ferrari's unique pit lane release system, but he went anyway. From the video footage it seems that the world champion was at fault. He was able to continue racing while his mechanic was stretchered to the medical centre, but not for long. While stepping on the gas on the exit of the final corner he lost drive, then pulled over out of the racing line as his engine detonated in smokey fashion. It brought to the end a pretty awful weekend for Raikkonen, one of many this season, and was Ferrari's second engine failure in as many races. They seem to have pace, but there are real question marks over their reliability and over the mind set of Kimi Raikkonen who is losing ground in the title race and does not appear to have much of an answer to Massa's brilliant pace of late.

Aside from Adrian Sutil stuffing his Force India into the barriers in the closing laps, that was about as far as the excitement went in this Grand Prix. Massa cruised to the chequered flag some seven seconds clear of Hamilton with Kubica putting in a very strong performance to take third. Kovalainen had a quiet day back in fourth, with both Trulli and Vettel keeping him honest with fine displays for fifth and sixth. Glock got seventh, and Rosberg claimed Williams' first points in a while with eighth place.

Whatever the result of the stewards' inquiry, Hamilton will still hold the championship lead as they head to Spa-Francorchamps. It was a fairly poor race from a spectators' point of view, and the organisers will be hoping that the wholesale changes to the F1 regulations next year will yield a more exciting race with more overtaking opportunities next year. They will also be hoping that Fernando Alonso (possibly Honda bound?) will be able to stay on track for longer than one lap. And we will all be hoping that there is no nonsense with delayed investigations, that only serve to confuse and confound F1 fans and drivers alike.

Provisional Race Result

1. Massa*
2. Hamilton
3. Kubica
4. Kovalainen
5. Trulli
6. Vettel
7. Glock
8. Rosberg
9. Heidfeld
10. Bourdais
11. Piquet
12. Webber
13. Button
14. Fisichella
15. Nakajima
16. Barrichello
17. Coulthard
ret Raikkonen
ret Sutil
ret Alonso

*subject to investigation after race regarding pit lane incident.

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